Deep-sea mining is being licensed at a far greater scale than any previous extractive activity by humans, and at a speed that does not allow for adequate assessment of its short-, medium- or long-term consequences for the environment. It is likely to have the largest footprint of any single human extractive activity on the planet.
The international law-based framework for regulating deep-sea mining in the international areas of the world’s oceans is contained in Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the sea (UNCLOS), which came into force in 1994. The Convention set up the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to regulate states’ deep-sea mining activities in all the seabed outside the continental shelves, which extend up to 350 nautical miles from land. UNCLOS declared this “Area” to be the “common heritage of mankind”, recognizing that it has value for and belongs to all humanity, including future generations. The ISA is obligated to operate for the ‘benefit of mankind as a whole’ and ensure the ‘effective protection’ of the marine environment.
To date, the ISA has issued 29 licenses for the exploration for mineral resources in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. Altogether these licenses exploration areas cover over 1.2 million square kilometers of the seabed. The ISA has not yet issued any licenses or contracts to allow commercial mining to take place but a number of countries and companies have expressed a strong interest in developing commercial deep seabed mining activities. The ISA is currently in the process of negotiating rules and regulations to permit commercial deep seabed mining, aiming to complete these negotiations and adopt the regulations by 2020. to be granted to enable companies to explore for minerals and assess their viability. These would then allow companies or State own enterprises to begin applying for commercial mining licenses.
Scientists and NGOs are concerned that the commercial mining regulations will not impose sufficient environmental safeguards on ventures with high ecological risks and potentially favor the interest of the mining industry in pursuit of high economic returns.
Moreover, important operational procedures conducted by the ISA under the current exploration regulations are lacking in transparency and public scrutiny, for example, the contracts the ISA has issues for exploration and the annual reports on activities required under those contracts are completely confidential and are entirely closed to observers. Furthermore, lack of compliance with the existing regulations has been repeatedly raised as an issue of concern by States that are members of the ISA, although the details of the activities in question are not made public and the ISA has no capacity to independently verify compliance with existing regulations. And meetings of the Legal and Technical Commission, the main advisory body of the ISA on all matters related to environmental impacts of exploration activities, are completely closed to States, observers, and the general public.
Although scientific exploration is continually advancing our knowledge of the deep ocean, it also reveals just how much there is still to discover and understand. Huge uncertainties make it difficult to predict the magnitude of consequences of human activity in the deep ocean. It is therefore vital that we proceed with extreme caution. The deep ocean is an essential force within the Earth system and must be protected from harm.
In general, our approach to the consumption of mineral resources should be one of sustainability, reuse, improved product design and recycling of existing materials as a priority over exploration for new sources of minerals, including in the deep sea.
If deep-sea mining is permitted to occur, it should not take place until appropriate and effective regulations for exploration and exploitation are in place to ensure that the full range of marine habitats, biodiversity and ecosystem functions are effectively protected, including, but not limited to, through establishing networks of marine protected areas and reserves.
The DSCC argues that commercial mining should be deferred until sufficient scientific information is available to ensure that effective conservation management plans can be put into place, for the following reasons:
- Even after three decades of work, researchers continue to find new species, adaptations, behaviors and habitats (e.g hydrothermal vents)– some in well-known settings. There is still much to learn.
- There is no strategy in place to assess the cumulative impacts of mining and other stressors on deep-sea environment. Scientists are recognizing that deep-sea ecosystems are coming under increasing stress from the impacts of climate change (deoxygenation, reduced food supply, acidification, changing temperatures), plastics, persistent organic pollutants, and degradation that has already occurred as a result of deep-sea bottom trawl fishing.
- Recent publications by scientists and others have concluded that biodiversity loss in the deep-sea will occur if mining is permitted and that the loss is likely to be permanent on human timescales given the very stable nature of many deep-sea environments and the limited prospect of recovery after mining has occurred.
- Measures for calculating and fairly allocating the economic costs and benefits of deep-sea mining activities are at best embryonic. If mining activities take off under the current system, there is a high likelihood that profits will accrue disproportionately to the countries and companies leading the charge, while costs and losses will be borne more broadly in a familiar “tragedy of the commons” scenario. This is likely to be to the detriment of developing countries.
The regulations and their framework must be robust and include:
- clear conservation and management objectives
- transparent and enforceable procedures including access to information, public participation and review procedures
- measures based on the precautionary and ecosystem approaches and the polluter pays principle
- publicly available, comprehensive, prior environmental impact assessments, based on extensive, high quality environmental baseline information and independent review procedures
- strategic environmental management plans with well-designed and resourced compliance and enforcement procedures
- liability provisions, insurance and bonds, a redress and liability fund, and a sustainability fund.
They should also ensure that significant adverse impacts on vulnerable marine ecosystems and ecologically or biologically significant areas are prevented and that other serious harm to the marine environment does not occur. Well-designed networks of protected areas must be established to achieve agreed objectives and cumulative impacts from mining and other activities and sectors must also be considered.
The development and adoption of any deep-sea mining exploration and exploitation regulations must be transparent and participatory. Any mining activities permitted thereafter must respect the common heritage of humankind and ensure real benefits to society as a whole.
Management must be effective, accountable and transparent with ongoing monitoring, compliance, enforcement and transparent review.
Learn more about the DSCC’s Call to Action.